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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Collecting Of Watch-Cocks

( Original Published 1913 )



You may have seen necklaces made out of parts of old verge watches-out of watch-cocks, or, as the French call them, coqs de montre. Apart from the decorative use of watch-cocks as strung together into necklaces or bracelets, or made into brooches and other fastenings, there is quite a world of knowledge and research in connection with these lovely things. The art that was expended on them was in itself very marvellous; as much as thirty shillings apiece was paid to the workmen who made them in the days when they were fixed into watches-our grandfathers' and great-grandfathers' and great-great-grandfathers' days. And the art of them is so individual; hardly ever will. you come across two that in curves and details of the ornament are at all identical. Nobody now can know who were the designers, but the ornamental lines of watch-cocks are supremely good as bits of design.

Historical. The history of watch-cocks goes back for three centuries, and the dates of them can best be assigned by the study of dated watches, or watches bearing the names of makers whose dates are known from the records of the Clockmakers' Company or of the Paris Clockmakers' Guild; sometimes the hallmark indicates an otherwise missing date. French collectors classify their coqs de montre into Louis Quatorze, Regence, Louis Quinze, and Louis Seize divisions. I do not know of any such clear-cut divisions as those for English watch-cocks. But the Englishmade are the firmest, and, strange to say, the most beautifully ornamented, as well as the best. In the days when each part of each watch was hand-made, when there was no standardisation of parts, and those who purchased watches were people with plenty of money, cost was " little object " but inevitable, and ornament was lavished on the cases, the cocks, the pillars which connected the two plates of a watch movement, and other parts of a watch; the hands alone often cost &. In 1793 a watchmaker named Josiah Emery told a Select Committee of the House of Commons that he had made thirty-two or thirtythree lever watches, and his price for them was 150 each. About that date the lever movement began to supersede the verge movement, and the making of watch-cocks declined.

The Verge Movement and the Name. I need not, if I could, go into the technical differences between the verge movement-the earliest of all-and the lever movement; but, broadly, the balance-spring, or hairspring, in the verge was open to the watch-case, and in the lever watch it is closed. The first function of the watch-cock was to hold in place one end of the balance-staff, and a slight piece of metal sufficed for that. But the size of the piece of metal was soon increased to perform the function of a cover or shell for the circular balance-spring, and that, I think, is how the name coq de montre-which in English became watch-cock-arose. For " shell'.' in French is coque ; the circular protection of the balance-spring was a shell or coque to it, and coq is doubtless a corruption of coque. There is another theory as to the name, I know; by watchmenders the circular piece is called the " body " of the watch-cock, and the arc-shaped or four-sided part is called the " tail " ; but in that case, where is the head of chanticleer ? Never till the late eighteenth century did French watchmakers give a tail to the coq, and I think the second theory as to the name cannot hold good.

French and English. The great distinction between the French-made and the English-made is that the coq de snontye had no " tail," which the watch-cock invariably had. Another distinction is the material. Until the middle of the eighteenth century the material in France was nearly always silver; in England it was always brass. Only the British mechanics of the time appear to have been equal to forging a brass-watchbrass it is called-as hard or almost as hard and durable as fine steel, or to drilling and piercing, sawing, and then engraving that hard metal into the beautiful and individual designs which rejoices a collector's eye.

In English watch-cocks the " tail " was nearly always open-work till about 1770, though the solid " tail " began to be made about 1720. Something about that date can be judged from the design at the neck, or that part where the " body " and the " tail " are joined. The early watch-cocks show a basket there, and the idea seems to have been that the lovely floral lines represented flowers in a basket. The " ears " or bits of floral design left and right of the basket and apart from the " body " survived even when the basket had given place to a mask or face. The oldest English watch-cocks have open feet' of irregular shape and ears.

The Prices Now. Nowadays the whole " works " of a verge watch can be bought for a shilling, the watchcock included. I have picked up watch-cocks at a penny each. You will find them in watchmakers' windows, ready gilded, for is. 6d. or 2s. each, and bracelets of them can be bought for 15s., and necklaces, for 2 or 3; ; they are also made into brooches, clasps, hat-pins, and scarf-pins.